Having seen no Black Mirror episode that I didn’t like, I was filled with anticipation for the release of season 4, and in true 21st century spirit, binge-watched almost the entire thing on its release date.
The show has found a much larger audience of late, thanks to its 3rd (and 4th) series being commissioned and distributed by Netflix worldwide, rather than by Channel 4 to just the UK. Despite its mass appeal, though, I find a certain resonance with the show, due to Charlie Brooker’s somewhat pessimistic view of the future.
It’s easy to view these stories as an indictment of technology and fear of progress, but they’re more what Charlie Brooker describes as the product of a ‘Hitchcock Mind’ – a mind that sees suspense everywhere and expects the worse. Brooker gives the example of seeing a spiked fence gate and immediately imagining someone slipping whilst trying to climb it and impaling their hand.
And that’s a good analogy for the show as a whole – the gate could easily be a metaphor for the future; and the impaled hand, a metaphor for a loss of humanity. The issues that are raised in Black Mirror are often issues that we face now: privacy, manipulation, relationships, duty, morality etc but examined through a lens of how these issues could exist in the future.
Therefore, I empathise with Brooker’s ideas, with worrying about things in the present and how I can continue to cope with things in the future. Judging by the show’s increase in popularity, a lot of people have the same thoughts.
Without further ado, then, let’s examine the new season of Black Mirror, in the order that Netflix suggests I watch the episodes, starting, as always, with number 1.
Rob Daly (Jesse Plemmons) is the coding genius behind a new VR game, set to be launched on Christmas Eve in the not too distant future. He is treated poorly and with a lack of respect by his colleagues and business partner at work. At home, however, he has a modded version of the game which, by collecting their DNA, he has uploaded digital emulations of his colleagues to.
Here, with the power of a God, and no repercussions, he can punish and terrorise his colleagues for how their counterparts treat him in the real world and cast himself as the hero in a series of adventures.
The first thing that struck me about this episode is how much fun the production crew had making it look like Star Trek. In the episode, Space Fleet (so called due, presumably, to copyright reasons) is Daly’s favourite TV show and his modded game universe is based on the show with himself in the role of Captain Kirk.
The costumes, the set, the overacting and the daft-looking villains and monsters are all in the style of the original low-budget Star Trek and there are various moments where the viewer can tell that the crew enjoyed making it so.
For instance, the first character to ‘die’ is wearing red and when the ship goes through an asteroid field, the camera tilts at a Dutch angle and all of the actors stumble one way and the other to simulate the changes in gravity.
The acting is pretty great too as each actor has to essentially play three roles; the real-world character, the digital doppelganger living in fear of Daly and the doppelganger acting in Daly’s universe as a character of Space Fleet.
Jimmi Simpson, who also put in a great performance in Westworld, shines here, giving some great nuance to his character, which could have easily ended up one-dimensional.
The episode is also refreshing in having something of a happy ending. Only Season 3 episode San Junipero has previously had one in Black Mirror, although you could say that Nosedive has a happy-ish ending in that it ends with the main character smiling, having found a freedom of sorts from an oppressive society, although she is in jail.
USS Callister ends with the protagonists escaping from Daly and the modded game universe and, instead of ceasing to exist, finding themselves in the online Infinity game, able to interact with other players.
As with most Black Mirror episodes, we are presented here by a collection of morally grey characters. We are initially supposed to feel sympathy for Daly, who is unappreciated and socially awkward, but we later find that, given power, he is really quite repulsive.
On the other hand, we initially dislike Walton because he treats Daly with contempt, but his digital doppelganger sacrifices himself to save the others and therefore redeems himself.
Daly’s character has been somewhat profound, given the revelations in Hollywood (well, revelations to us, not them (well, hardly revelations to us either, but at least we didn’t personally know the facts)) surrounding abuse and exploitation of female cast and crew by men in positions of power. Nanette is the only character put into the mod because Daly desires her, rather than hates her.
But the question still remains as to who is in the wrong, and whether this was really a happy ending.
Yes, the doppelgangers escaping Daly’s tyranny is a satisfying conclusion, but there are a few uneasy kinks left there.
For a start, the real-world characters haven’t learned anything and don’t know what’s happened. Real-world Walton, especially, wouldn’t see himself as he truly is and sacrifice himself for other people.
Secondly, it’s implied that Daly dies at the end. He is left trapped with no control, unable to exit the game while it shuts down around him. We see him sat motionless in his chair in the real world, and if he isn’t braindead, we know from earlier information that with the update to the game launched on Christmas Eve, the office is closed for ten days. As Daly doesn’t seem like he has any friends or family, nobody would realise that he’s stuck until the office reopens, and even then, would anyone check on him straight away? And if they did, would they be able to help?
So, assuming that he’s dead or dying, is that really fair on him? That in and of itself is the classic eye-for-an-eye debate, if you judge him on his actions in the game; but if you do so, then you have to ask, do the uploaded characters have free will or are they programmed to act as closely to their real-life selves as possible?
If it’s the latter, then Daly’s actions, although horrific, aren’t illegal or indeed harming anyone. In fact, it would be quite a healthy, although rather creepy way, to relieve his stress from work on unfeeling code even if it’s perhaps a little terrifying to see someone take such pleasure in such a realistic depiction of others’ pain.
If it’s the former, you still have to ask if Daly realises this. As far as he’s aware, he’s just dealing with code that he’s programmed slightly too much resilience into. He may treat his captives differently if he knew that they were sentient, although we assume he wouldn’t because he has complete control over them, but he should be given a chance to make amends rather than killed outright.
In its essence, USS Callister is a tale about morality in a universe that you’ve created. Does how we treat characters in video games determine how we treat people in real life? What does it mean to play God?
This episode is perhaps a little long, but blends a fun space adventure story with its deeper questions about ethics and what we define as sentient and human.